The Watsons at The Menier Chocolate Factory

Laura Wade’s play is funny, thought-provoking and exhilarating

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Watsons starts as a fairly conventional adaptation of a Jane Austen story taking place on a lovely white set by Ben Stones.

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Emma needs a husband and the question is, which of the three contenders will she end up marrying? Will it be for love or money? But this is an unfinished novel so we reach a point where the plot runs out and, suddenly, the author of the play steps in to prevent it going in an unintended direction. Played by Louise Ford, she’s a wonderful combination of determination and exasperation. From here on, it’s mayhem all the way.

At first it’s a conversation between the playwright Laura and the lead character Emma. Grace Moloney makes her totally believable as a typically intelligent witty Jane Austen heroine who takes the opportunity to figuratively (or, come to think of it, literally) rip off her stays.

Soon all the other characters are involved. Laura has a clear idea of how the story should develop but these are not her characters: they’re Jane Austen’s. They have their own ideas and Laura starts to lose the plot.

Quite mind-blowing

Thus we enter into an exploration of the creative process and, if that sounds a little dry, let me assure you it’s more like entering a flume ride. Many authors have talked about how characters take on a life of their own and begin to dictate the plot. Here it happens in front of our eyes. And of course the author, even though she’s called Laura, is a character herself created by the actual playwright Laura Wade.

Production photo of Grace Moloney and Louise Ford in The Watsons at The Menier Theatre in London
Grace Moloney and Louise Ford in The Watsons. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The play becomes mind blowing as Ms Wade digs through the layers of implications and branches out in many directions to explore artistic creation and women’s experience.

She raises questions of free will and predestination. The characters are the creations of a God-like author but we living human beings also ask how much we are in charge of our destinies and how much our character seals our fate.

It’s partly an argument about whether you should conform or be true to yourself but when the characters put taking control to a vote, it also raises a cheeky referendum-related question of whether people should have a say if they don’t have all the information.

When the characters take charge, anarchy reigns. People behave out-of-character or perhaps as they would without the restraints of society’s rules, in this case a society created by the author. You see what I mean when I say this work is vertiginous.

A head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade

Production shot of the company in The Watsons at The Menire Chocolate Factory Theatre
The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Watsons is a head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade whose reputation is already high after her brilliant Home, I’m Darling. Directed by her husband Samuel West with a lightness of touch, the production makes the most of every opportunity for humour. There is a wonderful moment just after the characters have just discovered that they are in a play. When Laura steps through the fourth wall, as one they gasp and sway backwards.

You also realise that the significance of the white set is probably that the author hasn’t filled in the details.

There is the odd moment when the examination of the author’s own situation feels a little indulgent but The Watsons delivers a funny, thought-provoking, exhilarating evening.

The Watsons is running at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 16 November 2019

Paul saw a preview performance of The Watsons

Click here to watch the video review of The Watsons on YouTube

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism

Production photo of Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre London
Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.

Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.

On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.

Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.

Production photo showing the cast of The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre in London
The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.

Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.

Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting

Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.

The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals   some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.

Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase  as being racist because she used it against a black person.

She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.

The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.

Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance

The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.

The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue?  Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.

Production photo of Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre in London
Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlanliet

The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.  Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.

A lack of respect for his audience?

I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.

Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.

Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.

The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.

Click here to watch the YouTube review of The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson

Prism starring Robert Lindsay – review

A Masterclass in Playwriting and Acting


5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.

Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Robert Lindsay in Prism at Hampstead Theatre

Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.

Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.

It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.

Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors

It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.

Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.

Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.

News added June 2019

Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019:

BIRMINGHAM REPERTORY (3 – 12 OCTOBER), RICHMOND THEATRE (14 – 19 OCTOBER), NOTTINGHAM THEATRE ROYAL (21 – 26 OCTOBER), EDINBURGH KINGS (28 OCTOBER – 2 NOVEMBER), CHICHESTER FESTIVAL THEATRE (4 – 9 NOVEMBER), GUILFORD YVONNE ARNAUD THEATRE (11 – 16 NOVEMBER), CAMBRIDGE ARTS (18 – 23 NOVEMBER), MALVERN FESTIVAL THEATRE (25 – 30 NOVEMBER)

Watch my review on YouTube

Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity – Donmar – Review

Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.

Production shot of Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson
Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.

Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.

Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.

Production shot of Anne-MarieDuff and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity at The Donmar Wrehouse in London. Photo: Johan Persson
Anne-MarieDuff (left) and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

But it’s not a one woman show.

Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.

Production shot of Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity at The Donmar in London. Photo by Johan Persson
Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.

What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.

Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019

Here’s the link to the YouTube review of Sweet Charity

Review revised on 18 April to add further description of design.

The Humans – Hampstead Theatre – Review

The Humans exposes the fears at the heart of a modern family

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Production photo from The Humans at Hampstead Theatre
The Humans at Hampstead Theatre

I love a family drama and they don’t come better than this. The Humans by Stephen Karam won four Tony awards when it was on Broadway. Now the original production directed by Joe Mantello has been imported with the same cast.

As a portrayal of a middle class family, it is spot on. Two parents meet with at their daughter’s new apartment in New York. Also in attendance are the daughter’s partner, sister and grandmother. The ensemble acting is terrific and they are absolutely believable as a bickering but loving family.

Click here for my YouTube review on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are the mother and father disappointed by how life has turned out and frightened for the future of their family. Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck show a wonderful rapport as the sisters, both unhappy in how their careers are going. The partner could be there simply as a device to enable the family to explain what’s going in but Arian Moayed makes him a real character, nervous and desperate to please and placate.

A play about fear enhanced by a spooky atmosphere

This is a play about the fears that engulf so many of today’s middle class families- fear of failure, unemployment, poverty, loss of love, illness, dementia, death. You can see how these fears weigh physically on all the actors’ shoulders. They’re most manifest in the father, magnificently portrayed by Reed Birney, and they lead to a big revelation at the end.

Production photo of The Humans at hampstead Theatre London
The Humans at Hampstead Theatre

The set designed by David Zinn is a realistic, naturalistic two floor gloomy apartment in New York which the couple have only just moved into. Their furniture has yet to arrive, so, although it is their home, it has a temporary, un-homely feel, like they could depart at any moment. This contributes to a feeling of spookiness that is ratcheted up by frightening noises from above and lights going out, suggesting darkness could descend at any moment.

All of this seems to say that while the causes of their fears may have names- the recession, globalisation, the technical revolution, ageing, and so on- these are forces as mysterious and uncontrollable as the gods and ghosts our ancestors believed in.

I found the play petered out a little at the end but I am so grateful to Hampstead Theatre for providing the opportunity to see this wonderful play.

The Humans is performing at Hampstead Theatre until 13 October 2018.

Watch the review of The Humans from One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube here-

Fun Home – Young Vic – review

Fun Home is a perfect musical

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Click here to see the YouTube review of Fun Home on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production photo of Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic
Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.

The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’

Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.

Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion  I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.

Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.

Production photo of Fun Home at Young Vic London
Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns  humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.

A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.

There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.

Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.

Fun Home is performing at Young Vic until 1 September. Click here for the Young Vic website

Watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube review here-